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For many from Palestine, there may be no return Prospects are poor despite peace talks


BAQA'A REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan -- The 26 members o Minwer Abu Tahon's family live in three small rooms while they await their return to Palestine.

They have been waiting here for 25 years now, and prospects still don't look good.

Optimism about the Middle East peace talks now being held in Washington do not lighten Mr. Abu Tahon's dour outlook. He grasps a paper -- a certificate signed by British and Turkish officials -- that says he owns a little more than 1,000 acres of land near Beersheba in what is now Israel.

"Maybe in a million years, maybe the grandsons of my grandson will take this certificate and get my land," Mr. Abu Tahon says of the old document. "This is my roots."

Even if the peace talks with Israel produce an agreement giving Palestinians self-government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, an estimated 2 million to 3 million Palestinians like Mr. Abu Tahon are likely still to be unable to return.

They -- or their fathers or grandfathers -- fled from their homes during the war that followed the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, or in the 1967 war when Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Many of them have scattered to the corners of the globe and have made new lives for themselves. About 2.6 million are still registered as refugees, however, and 900,000 of them live in refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied territories.

Every Jew is entitled to live in Israel under the country's "Law of Return." But Israel rejects a "right of return" to Palestinians who fled or were driven from what used to be called Palestine. Palestinian negotiators are expected to demand that right but are not expected to get it.

"Israel will not even accept the return of about 1,500 people it deported since 1967. It's difficult to be optimistic they will accept thousands of others," says Ibrahim Barhoum, an official of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Amman.

Abdul Jawad Saleh is one of those 1,500. He was the mayor of el Bireh, a small town north of Jerusalem, when the Israelis deported him for political activities Dec. 10, 1973. He figures his offense was to tell Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in front of television cameras that a Jewish dynasty collapsed more than 20 centuries ago and would do so again.

"Deportation is a punishment that I don't think is comparable with any other," says Mr. Saleh, 60, in his small office in Amman. He spends hours there pecking at a computer, churning out political reports and publications on the Israeli rule of his homeland. He is preoccupied by it and by his separation from his family, who stayed behind.

"I have suffered a lot," he says. "It never stops. My mother is old and needs a son to care for her. I feel guilty I cannot go there. My relationship with my children has suffered.

"If I heard we could go back, I'd start walking right away for the bridge. I wouldn't even wait a half-hour," he says.

But others would be more hesitant. In a neat, whitewashed room inside the Baqa'a camp, Mustafa Salem Khatab, 73 years old, wistfully recalls the fields of wheat, orange trees and corn he says his family owned near the present-day Tel Aviv. It was seized to become part of the new state of Israel.

"They came with guns. We had no guns, and we could do nothing," the Palestinian recalls. "I left my house like a man going to his death."

But even if he could, he would not return, the old man said. He shrugged. "The land is Israel now."

"When I came here, I had only one boy. Now I have 24 children," he says. "This is my home. I consider myself Jordanian."

The Baqa'a camp was set up in 1968 by the United Nations and the Jordanian government. It was a forest of tents holding 26,000 Palestinian refugees after the 1967 Six-Day War. Now it is a city of two-story, concrete buildings housing more than 100,000, the swollen families of the original refugees.

The camp is dense with people. Each family still is allocated only the 100-square meters they got when they arrived. Births and marriages have filled the small rooms to overflowing with successive generations.

But unlike Palestinian refugee camps in the Israeli-occupied territories, each home has electricity, water and indoor plumbing. Many of the streets are paved, the market is bustling, and the men are free to go out each day to jobs.

"This place is like a bus station. Most of them leave in the morning and come back in the evening," said Tahsin Barqawi, a camp official. "If you ask anyone what they want, they would say they want to return [to Palestine]. But it's not so easy to leave here."

The camp residents pay only for their food, water and electricity. For those with jobs, it is a comfortable economic trap, if a %J crowded one.

Many other Palestinians have long since left the camps and made their own economic way. Perhaps half or more of the 4 million residents of Jordan are Palestinians, and they include many of the most successful businessmen, the wealthiest landowners and most prominent professionals.

Mohamed Hasan Milhem, who is head of a committee studying displaced Palestinians, thinks many of them would not move permanently to the West Bank.

Mr. Milhem is the former mayor of the West Bank town of Halhoul, near Hebron. He was deported by the Israelis in 1980. He would return if allowed to do so. But he acknowledges the difficulties for others.

"There is not much land in the West Bank. It's limited, and it's overpopulated. The [Jewish] settlers have taken most of the land and most of the water," he says. "There's no more space to live there, no water to drink, no education."

The West Bank and Gaza have declined economically in 25 years, he says. There are few institutions there, little industry and limited investment. For Palestinians in Jordan and other modern countries, living in Palestine may have only sentimental appeal.

But that pull is strong. It is a hallmark of the Palestinian people that the march of generations has not dimmed their fervor to return.

Kefa Hussein, a 21-year-old nurse, has never seen her family's village of Tulkarm in the West Bank. But "it's my home," she says firmly.

"There is an emotional connection to my home, even though I have not been there," she says. "My grandmother and grandfather lived there. We had a house there. We had a farm. If we can go, I will go there."

It is still to be determined who will have the chance. The new Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, has talked encouragingly about handing over many functions of self-government to the Palestinians. But he has said Israel will retain control of the borders. He is unlikely suddenly to welcome masses of Palestinians.

Several hundred thousand Palestinians who lived under the Israeli occupation have identification cards permitting them to return at any time to the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

But most of the half-million who fled during the 1967 war do not have those identification cards, though they still may have homes or land or families in Palestinian villages.

The 750,000 Palestinians who fled in the 1948 war, and whose high birth rate has since tripled their number, have no land to which to return. That area is now Israel. Palestinian officials grudgingly concede the best they can hope for is some monetary compensation.

Such differences may cause dissension among Palestinians if a peace agreement allows some to return, but not others.

"If you and I lost our houses, and now the peace will give you your house, and not give me mine, is that justice?" asks Mr. Abu Tahon.

Others reject the whole concept of bargaining with Israelis over land they believe is theirs. They say there is another option.

"I believe we will go back to our land," said Basem Mohammed Ismael, a 35-year-old appliance store owner in Baqa'a. "I believe Israel will leave it. But only by force. That is the way."

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